Report: When College Doesn’t Pay Off

New data from Georgetown show that nearly a third of colleges and universities leave most students worse off 10 years after enrolling than their peers with only a high school diploma.

February 15, 2022
 
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Most students who attend college earn more 10 years down the road than those who don’t. But at roughly one-third of institutions, a majority of students end up earning less than those with a high school diploma, according to a new analysis from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The analysis examines new data from College Scorecard and looks at net economic gains for college students 10 years and 40 years after they enroll. The data includes all students, including those who did not graduate.

“College typically pays off, but the return on investment varies by credential, program of study, and institution,” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Center for Education and the Workforce, said in a press release.

Low earnings are often linked to low graduation rates at a given institution, said Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and education policy at the center. At many institutions, the share of students who earn a degree is 50 percent or less.

“At many of those colleges—where students start and never finished—the [return on investment] probably doesn’t offer any more than that a high school diploma would, because if you go to college and you don’t finish, you don’t have a credential that is worth any more than a high school diploma in the marketplace,” Van Der Werf said.

Students who attend college but never graduate miss out on the “earnings premium” that comes with a college degree, said Michael Itzkowitz, senior higher education fellow at Third Way.

“Let’s just say that the average student at University of Florida is making $30,000 a year, but someone in the state of Florida—a high school graduate with no college experience—is making $20,000 a year. We can make an assumption that by attending the specific institution or college program they’ve attended, they’ve obtained a $10,000 earnings premium by doing so,” Itzkowitz said.

The Center for Education and the Workforce also published a searchable table of more than 4,500 institutions that ranks each college based on its net economic returns. Pharmacy schools and STEM-focused four-year colleges top the list of institutions that offer the best long-term returns on investment, the data show. The University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis took the top spot, with a net economic gain of $2.68 million 40 years after enrollment. The Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences ranked second and third, offering $2.61 million and $2.51 million in net economic gain after 40 years.

The California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Harvey Mudd College, Bentley University, Babson College and the University of Pennsylvania also made the list, all offering more than $2 million in long-term net economic gains.

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Two-year institutions offered the best net economic gains after 10 years, in part because students who graduate in two years compared with four spend more time in the workforce and incur less debt, Van Der Werf said. About 15 or 20 years postenrollment, that begins to change.

“Over time, the returns on a four-year degree are quite a bit higher than on a two-year degree,” Van Der Werf said. “Of course, that depends on what the [two-year] degree is. If it’s in a technical topic—like computer science—you can compete with a four-year degree. But a two-year degree in general studies or something like that has some capture in the labor force in the early years after you earn it, but it begins to fade over time.”

The report also found that public institutions, on average, offered better returns on investment over time than private colleges at both the 10-year and 40-year mark. This is in part because public college tuition on average is less expensive.

“​​Over time, the return on privates picks up later in your career,” Van Der Werf said. “Privates generally have higher graduation rates, but they also are costlier and people have taken out loans to go there, so the net cost is always higher.”

Cosmetology and beauty schools populate the bottom of the center’s list, offering very low returns on investment in both the short and long term. Some institutions also leave students with negative net gains 10 years after enrollment, including the Manhattan School of Music, Beacon College, Brookline College–Tempe and Hussian College–Los Angeles.

For-profit colleges, on average, offer very low returns on investment compared to their nonprofit and public peers, said Andrew Gillen, a senior policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That is partly because there’s a large divide between high- and low-quality institutions within the sector.

“There’s so much more heterogeneity—meaning the high-performing for-profits really, really outperformed the low-performing for-profits—to a much greater extent than you see in the public sector,” Gillen said.

While net economic impact isn’t the only factor students consider while choosing a college, Van Der Werf hopes that making these data available will encourage more students to look at returns on investment before they enroll.

“One of the many things that people ought to be sifting through is the success of other people who have attended an institution and majored in the same thing,” he said.

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